STAUNTON, Va. (AP) — A rural Virginia school district canceled classes and a holiday concert after being flooded with angry messages over a school calligraphy lesson that involved copying a Muslim statement of faith in Arabic.
Some of the tens of thousands of emails and Facebook posts “posed a risk of harm to school officials” and threatened protests, Superintendent Eric Bond said in a message to parents and employees on Friday.
Augusta County Sheriff Randall D. Fisher said security has been assigned to Bond, the teacher who created the lesson and the school’s principal. The teacher is worried about herself and her family, Fisher said.
Anger over the lesson has escalated since a teacher at Riverheads High School gave students an assignment that involved practicing calligraphy and writing a statement in Arabic — the Shahada, a profession of faith recited in Muslims’ daily prayers. It is omnipresent in religious imagery, often appearing on the walls of mosques and in religious art, but also on the flags of groups such as the Islamic State.
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The statement translated to: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” The teacher’s lesson was drawn from instructional material that also includes Judeo-Christian assignments.
At a forum Tuesday, one parent said the assignment promoted a false religious doctrine, while other parents expressed outrage. Some demanded the teacher be fired.
Kimberly Herndon, who organized that event, said she may take the issue to court, The News Leader newspaper reported.
“She gave up the Lord’s time,” Herndon said of LaPorte on Tuesday, according to the newspaper. “She gave it up and gave it to Muhammad.”
The teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, declined comment. A Facebook group supporting LaPorte had more than 2,000 members on Friday. Many commenters defended LaPorte and the school district.
“I think people are making a big deal about it for no reason at all,” said 18-year-old Hannah Carey, a former student of LaPorte who lives in Waynesboro. “We learned about all different cultures, and she was a great teacher.”
School officials said the aim of the lesson was to illustrate the complexity of the written Arabic language, not to promote any religious system.
“Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future,” Doug Shifflett, Augusta County’s assistant superintendent for administration, said in a statement.
Virginia’s Standards of Learning suggest students learn about Islamic art, architecture and calligraphy and create an arabesque design or drawing during their study of the cultural characteristics of the Middle East, Michelle Stoll, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education, said in a statement. But the guidelines don’t recommend that the students copy a particular teaching or verse, Stoll said.
“The calligraphy assignment at Riverheads High appears to have been taken from a locally selected or developed resource,” she said.
Advocacy groups have said a spate of anti-Muslim incidents across the U.S. recently can be linked to the mass shooting in California and inflammatory rhetoric from politicians.
In Virginia, Fairfax County authorities charged a man last month with leaving a fake bomb at a mosque. And in Spotsylvania County, a sheriff’s deputy had to halt a community meeting on a proposed mosque after a speaker was interrupted several times by residents who denounced Islam.
The News Virginian said Fishersville resident Tim Cooper called the newspaper’s office to ask why the Wilson Memorial High School holiday concert was canceled.
“It looks like fear wins again,” Cooper told the newspaper.
Associated Press reporters Alanna Durkin and Alan Suderman contributed to this report from Richmond.